How Does the Shepherd Shepherd?
The words are so familiar they can glide off our tongues with hardly a thought:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:1-4 KJV)
Eloquent, moving words. But what do they actually mean?
INTERPRETING THE SYMBOLS
Psalm 23 is the product of a human writer who describes Yahweh as “my Shepherd.” So the passage must be speaking metaphorically. It’s describing Yahweh’s care for his human followers, not fluffy four-legged animals (though he provides for them too; Ps 8:7). We who are his followers don’t spend our days stretched out on grassy fields. And the Lord doesn’t normally deal with us by using wooden sticks. These pastoral images point to something else; they symbolize something greater.
What do they symbolize? We may be tempted to think that the psalm is promising perpetually pleasant physical circumstances for Yahweh’s people. One problem with that is the rest of Scripture. Job didn’t always feel like he was relaxing by a serene stream. Neither did Jesus. Actually, he was like a lamb being led to the slaughter (Isa 53:7). So are many others among God’s people (Ps 44:22/Rom 8:36).
More to the immediate context, Psalm 23 itself warns us not to think too much in terms of enjoyable circumstances. Verse 4 says that Yahweh shepherds his people even when they are traversing “the valley of the shadow of death.” This verse also suggests the right understanding of the Shepherd-sheep metaphor. It speaks of Yahweh comforting his people. A sense of his presence expels our fear in the midst of life’s most overwhelming circumstances. Verse 4 is describing a spiritual, even emotional, experience that God ministers to us, and it would seem that verses 1-3 are describing similar kinds of experiences from the Lord.
GETTING MORE SPECIFIC
But that only leads to another question: how does this work? Exactly how do we experience the Lord’s spiritual ministry? No doubt there’s a subjective aspect to it that’s impossible to analyze with precision. It’s like trying to explain how Romans 8:16 works, or how it feels: “The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Nevertheless, we ought to go as far as the Bible goes in explaining such things. Psalm 23doesn’t delineate how it is that God ministers to us like a shepherd cares for his sheep. But we do find details elsewhere in Scripture. In particular, we learn that the Lord ordinarily works through means. Philippians 4 teaches that we experience peace from him through prayer (vv. 6-7). Likewise, our fellow believers can serve as instruments of God’s comfort to us (e.g., 2 Cor 1:3-7)
But I want to concentrate on the other, primary instrument of God’s shepherding. I’m talking about Scripture itself, of course, and I’ve found that thinking of the Bible through the lens of Psalm 23 helps me to approach it with a fresh perspective.
SHEPHERDING THROUGH THE WORD
Psalm 23:2 brings to mind the role of Scripture in Yahweh’s shepherding. Shepherds take sheep to pastures and to streams in order to give the animals food and drink. Similarly, God’s Word is described as a source of spiritual nourishment and refreshment (e.g., Deut 8:3/Matt 4:4; Ps 119:103; 1 Pet 2:2).
Ecclesiastes 12:11 makes a connection between shepherding and Scripture: “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” This verse incorporates three metaphors. It connects the shepherding picture with the sharp prodding of a cattle-herder and the firmness that results from well-driven nails. These varied images describe the content of Ecclesiastes as a whole: the book expounds many painful truths, but embracing its teaching makes for stability and security. And all of this derives from Yahweh, who inspired Ecclesiastes in order to shepherd people so that they don’t waste their lives.
THE SHEPHERD AND THE LAW
According to the traditional titles, David—a shepherd—wrote both Psalm 23 and Psalm 19. I find some phraseology shared by these psalms to be significant. Psalm 23:3 says, “He restores my soul.” Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.” In both cases “soul” is the Hebrew noun nephesh, which typically designates the whole person. “Restores” and “reviving” reflect the same Hebrew verb (shub). In both verses it means “to cause to return” or “to bring back” the believer from a condition of decline to a condition of wellness.
What is different is the subject of each statement: in Psalm 23 Yahweh the Shepherd is the one who restores the believer, but in Psalm 19 it’s the Torah of Yahweh that accomplishes the restoring work. “Torah” means instruction or teaching, but it characteristically refers to the instruction of the Law of Moses specifically. This is the case in Psalm 19, as seen in its use of parallel Mosaic Law vocabulary in verses 7-9: “testimony,” “precepts,” “commandment,” “fear,” and “rules.”
Here’s the upshot: Yahweh shepherds us—more specifically, he restores us spiritually— through his Word, including the moral instruction of the Mosaic Law. Of course, that Law plays multiple functions in God’s plan. It brings out human depravity in all its ugliness (Rom 7:7-12). It dominated a lengthy era of redemptive history that was designed to expose that depravity in order to move people to seek justification by faith in Christ (Gal 3:23–4:7). Even such “negative” roles, however, are ultimately gracious in purpose.
And when we are rightly related to God through Christ, we come to see more and more how the Law is a means of God’s grace, an instrument of his kind-hearted shepherding. As reflected in New Testament passages like Matthew 5:17-48 and Romans 13:18-10 and 1 Corinthians 9:8-11 and 1 Peter 1:14-16, the Lord continues to use the Law to reveal his own glorious character and to point us toward life choices that are healthy for us because they are in keeping with his moral order.*
We should have appreciated this from Psalm 23 all along. Verse 3 states that part of the Lord’s shepherding ministry is leading us “in paths of righteousness.” Here is one reason that the psalmists can honestly say they delight in the Torah of Yahweh (e.g., Ps 19:10; 119:24). As C. S. Lewis put it,
Their delight in the Law is a delight in having touched firmness; like the pedestrian’s delight in feeling the hard road beneath his feet after a false short cut has long entangled him in muddy fields. (Reflections on the Psalms, 62)
OUR VIEW OF THE BIBLE
Psalm 23 ought to shape how we approach the Scriptures and how we view our reading of it. Whatever we call it—quiet time, devotions, etc.—regularly reading the Bible isn’t about putting in required time or performing a duty. Yes, we must do it, but not primarily in the sense of obligation. We must do it because we desperately need the shepherding the Lord will accomplish through it.
With this in mind, here’s a prayer to lift up to the Lord the next time you go to read his Word:
Oh Yahweh, what a foolish sheep I am—prone to wandering and to making a mess of my life. Without your help I will surely lose my way. How I need your shepherding! I need your peace to dispel my anxiety. I need your hope to overcome my despair. I need your wisdom to direct me away from the foolishness that so often distorts my thinking.
So help me to take whatever I encounter in Scripture today as your way of shepherding me. Please restore me through your Word. Even when you declare, “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not,” you’re not being harsh or oppressive or abusive. You are graciously shepherding me! You are keeping me or drawing me back from destructive choices. You’re leading me in paths that issue in wholeness and blessing and glory. Thank you for your tender care! In the name of Jesus, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for me and through whom alone I can follow in your ways, Amen.
*For more on this theme, see my short book The Law and the Christian.
Photo credit: Patrick Schneider, unsplash.com